- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 11, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

COMMENTARY:

Trust the French to come up with an exciting new wrinkle in labor-management negotiations — but, first, the situation on this side of the pond.

After being a faint presence on the national scene for some years now, organized labor seems poised for a comeback.

The two largest union organizations, the 11-million-member AFL-CIO and the 6-million-member Change to Win, are in talks to reunite. If the nation’s largest single union, the 3.2-million-member National Education Association, joins in, that has the potential for a powerful organization

And labor is a vote or two away in the Senate from getting the Employee Free Choice Act, which would make it easier for workers to unionize and, with mandatory arbitration, for the union to get them a contract.

The possibility makes employers livid, but they might want to preserve some of their ire for the import of what seems to be a new Gallic custom — “bossnapping.”

In the face of a plant shutdown, layoffs or an unhappy work environment, the workers barricade the boss in his office and keep him there until a suitable compromise can be worked out. It can’t exactly be called amicable, but there’s no violence, and the only unhappy experience seems to be that of one barricaded boss who didn’t get fed. However, that was because he refused to pay for his share of the beer and sausages the workers ordered.

Bossnappings have taken place at plants owned by Sony, Caterpillar Inc. and 3M Co. The police rarely intervene, and even the corporations seem to take it in stride. A spokesman for Sony said, in effect: What do you expect? They’re French.

And there’s a twist on bossnapping that actually might work over here. A small engineering firm was in danger of shutting down for lack of a line of credit. The workers marched down to the local Royal Bank of Scotland and imprisoned the branch managers in their office until they agreed to extend almost $200,000 in new financing for the company.

The French public, if not exactly OK with this particular tactic, does not seem particularly alarmed. A poll done for the newspaper Le Parisien found that while 50 percent of the general public disapproved, a healthy 45 percent found it acceptable. Among blue-collar workers, 56 percent approved and 41 percent disapproved.

In this country during the 1930s, workers engaged in sit-down strikes, holing up in their factories and refusing to leave until their demands were met. The drawback here is that while the plants were held hostage, so in a sense were the workers.

In the French bossnapping, just a handful of people are affected: the bosses holed up in their offices and some workers to keep an eye on them. Everyone else goes home for lunch. (In one bossnapping, the bosses slipped out a side door, and the workers’ feelings seem to have been hurt by this breach of the unwritten rules, like cheating at capture the flag.)

On consideration, without a profound cultural shift in our country, bossnapping likely would not work. One reason is that, instead of sending beer and sausages, the civilized approach, police would send a SWAT team desperate to try out its new Department of Homeland Security-provided Abrams M1A1 main battle tank.

But there is a bigger reason, and it has to do with the style to which bosses have become accustomed.

Let us turn to John A. Thain, the former chief executive officer of Merrill Lynch who was forced to sell his company to Bank of America. Before he did, he spent $1.22 million redecorating his office.

Among the amenities were area rugs for $131,000; a $25,000 pedestal table; a $68,000 credenza; an $18,000 desk; six chairs for $37,000 and a $13,000 chandelier in his private dining room; $16,000 worth of fabric; and, everybody’s favorite, a parchment waste basket for $1,400.

Barricaded in an office like that, why would you even want to come out?

Dale McFeatters is a columnist for Scripps Howard News Service.

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